By Mark Blaudschun
August 30, 2007
CHESTNUT HILL The change happened quickly, if not unexpectedly, last December.
After 10 years, Tom O'Brien finally was leaving Boston College and the search was on for a replacement. For BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo it was the holiday season: his first hire of a coach of a major revenue-producing sport.
DeFilippo went on a search mission around the country. He came back with a rookie someone with zero head coaching experience, at any level.
But in Jeff Jagodzinski, who was the offensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers when DeFilippo made the call, it was an answered prayer.
Jags had been at BC a decade before as part of O'Brien's staff. He knew the school, knew the program, knew the restrictions. Fast forward a few months to the spring and the first preseason predictions.
Let's start with a premise: Team wins 10 games a year ago, 15 starters (17 if you include kickers) return, including eight defensive starters. On offense, the returnees are led by a quarterback who was all-conference a year ago and is the preseason choice as the conference offensive player of the year.
Where do you think you might rank this team, which comes from one of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences, in your preseason Top 25?
Top 10? Maybe.
Top 15? Probably.
Top 25? Certainly.
Not so fast my friend, as ESPN's football wizard Lee Corso has been known to say a few times when it seems a slam dunk is obvious. Say hello to the Boston College Eagles of the ACC, who were relegated to "others receiving votes" status in both the coaches' and writers' polls.
This despite having all of those starters back, including All-ACC quarterback Matt Ryan, who is ready for a last hurrah at The Heights. The question mark, you see, is not with who's on the field, but who's on the sideline.
O'Brien is gone, and Jagodzinski was in place. O'Brien had built a foundation at BC, which included seven straight bowl wins and win totals of 9, 8, 9, 9 and 10 over the past five seasons. The problem was that none of those wins included any major victories that could have elevated the Eagles into the BCS level.
Add growing tension between O'Brien and DeFilippo and you had a situation that was ripe for change.
O'Brien almost left for Georgia Tech a few years ago, came close to leaving for Washington two seasons ago and finally headed to N.C. State in December when Chuck Amato was fired.
DeFilippo, making the first major coaching decision (football, basketball) of his reign at BC, opted for Jagodzinski. Jags had ties to the Heights, serving as O'Brien's offensive coordinator at BC a decade ago.
Jagodzinski has leaped into his new job with an enthusiasm that has some people cheering and others squirming.
"We're going to win, and we're going to look good doing it," said Jagodzinski, who also said he wanted to "have fun." "We're not that far away. This is a good team."
BC had its fun moments over the past several years, but it was all low-key. O'Brien's teams won, but they didn't dazzle anyone. They were fundamentally sound, but still came up short when it came to climbing to the next level.
Jagodzinski and his new offensive coordinator Steve Logan say they want to speed up the tempo and the excitement factor.
"I want this place to be electric on Saturdays," said Jagodzinski, who is also bringing in a new zone blocking scheme to ratchet up the offensive production.
Make no mistake, BC can do some things. Ryan, who endured a series of foot injuries last season, says he is healthy and ready for his last go round at The Heights. Matty Ice, as his teammates call him, completed 61.6 percent of his passes last season for 2,941 yards and 15 touchdowns. He is being given more freedom by Jagodzinski and Logan, including the authority to call his own plays.
Ryan also has solid running backs such as L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender, wide receivers such as Brandon Robinson and Kevin Challenger and another solid offensive line to help make things work.
Defensively, the Eagles will be short senior linebacker Brian Toal, who had off-season shoulder surgery and will redshirt, but they have eight starters led by linebacker Jolonn Dunbar to help contain anyone who gets too aggressive.
Still, there is the uncertainty of how BC will react under Jagodzinski. Adding to the doubt is a schedule that is brutal at the start games against defending ACC champion Wake Forest, N.C. State in a return to BC for O'Brien and at Georgia Tech and tough at the end with Miami, Florida State, and road games against Virginia Tech, Maryland and Clemson.
Jagodzinski knows what he got into when he took the job in December. He hit one speed bump in the spring when offensive line coach Jim Turner resigned because of "philosophical differences." But he recovered quickly when he hired former BC center and veteran head coach Jack Bicknell Jr., the son of former BC head coach Jack Bicknell, to run the offensive line.
In Bicknell, in Logan, who has status as a former head coach at East Carolina, and in veteran defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, one of two coaches from O'Brien's staff who stayed (linebacker coach Bill McGovern was the other), Jagodzinski is surrounded by experience and men who know how to do their jobs.
Jagodzinski will still be the point man, however, selling the program to the alumni and to the recruits who want to come to BC and play in the ACC. But the bar is set fairly high. Winning 10 games again might be a challenge and getting to the next level is the goal that seems both close and distant at the same time.
"That's what we're here for," said Ryan, who picked up his undergraduate degree in May and will take a few post-graduate courses this fall to stay eligible to play one more season at BC. "We want to win the ACC title."
Jagodzinski, meanwhile, said he has been waiting his entire career for this moment.
"It's going to be fun," he said earlier in the spring, admitting he already had his pre-game speech prepared before the Eagles' first game against Wake Forest. "I can't wait."
For Jags, the waiting is almost over, as BC soon will find out if it can climb to the next level with a veteran team and a rookie coach.
BOSTON COLLEGE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- The media guide depth chart for the BC offensive line will not match the one new coach Jeff Jagodzinski will use for the opening game against Wake Forest. Jagodzinski was experimenting right though preseason camp and seemed to have settled on a front wall that had two of the five starters from the media guide actually starting. NFL prospect Gosder Cherilus was at left tackle and Ryan Poles at left guard, but Matt Tennant moved ahead of Kevin Sheridan at center and the right side was consisting of Clif Ramsey, moving from tackle to guard, and freshman tackle Anthony Castonzo, who came out of nowhere to claim the right tackle spot.
The steady changing of the offensive line came as the unit continued to learn the new zone blocking system and was also playing under new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., who came to BC after Jim Turner, hired after Jagodzinski took over, left. The play of the line, long the staple of the program, will be under scrutiny especially with the Eagles opening with three conference games.
BC assistant Mike Siravo was at Temple recruiting Castonzo, who played in prep school last year as his weight went from 220 to 260, and called the kid to tell him he was joining Jagodzinski at BC. Castonzo, who wanted to study biochemistry, told the Boston Globe he jumped at the BC offer. "He's going to start," Jagodzinski told the Globe. "He's going to be a really good player. He's very talented but he still has room to grow." The coach, a believer in players getting bigger after high school and not coming in over 300, says his freshman lineman is "going to be a 300-pound monster at some point."
Injuries at the running back position had the staff mixing and matching in preseason. L.V. Whitworth, the 1 or 1-A in the backfield with Andre Callender, was out right through the final scrimmage, while Callender and the explosive Jeff Smith also had minor problems and missed time. At one point in the third (and final full) scrimmage, the Eagles had two fullbacks on the field. But Whitworth returned to practice in time for the final scrimmage run-through. There's a feeling the faster Callender will see more time than Whitworth in the new offense.
Speaking of fullbacks, it has been a decade since BC has handed the ball to the fullback in the two-back set. In fact, former coach Tom O'Brien didn't even have the play in his playbook. The Eagles would throw to the fullback, and fullbacks carried (not often) as single backs, but never out of the two-back set. That will change under Jagodzinski.
The Eagles will have James McCluskey and freshman Brad Newman as their fullbacks this season. Neither has played a down of college football but both will get a chance to carry the ball out of the two-back set.
- Jagodzinski was clearly unhappy with the play of the offense in the Aug. 15 scrimmage and through the first half of the effort four days later. He had some words for his players at the break in the Aug. 19 scrimmage and the offense responded right off the bat.
"A lot better," the coach said. "We were a lot better than what I saw (previously). You know what guys? As long as you're improving every week and we're making a step towards Wake Forest and that's what we're preparing for, so I saw some things up front on both sides that I liked.
"I thought we ran the ball a little bit better today. I thought we threw the ball pretty well and we started moving the ball down the field, stringing first downs together we had a couple of explosive plays. I was happy with today. We've still got some work to do. We've got 13 days to get her done."
Smith, who burst onto the BC scene as a freshman last season by running a kickoff back for a touchdown against Clemson in a huge return game, has had problems holding onto the football, but Jagodzinski is determined to make sure the kid has plenty of chances to fix that flaw in his game. "We're going to try to get the ball in Jeff Smith's hands," Jagodzinski said. "He's on kickoff returns, maybe punts, some receiving, some tailback. We'll do a lot of things with him."
O'Brien was never known for handing over the keys to the BC store when it came to giving out secrets, but the former marine gave injury updates. Jagodzinski gives no such reports, other than to admit a player is "nicked" or "tweaked" when the player is not seen on the field. Whitworth was out through the first two weeks and no one in the media knew what was wrong with him.
An interesting possibility emerged from the scrimmages; 6-6 freshman receiver Ifeanyi Momah, a different kind of BC receiver because of his size, showed some pass-catching abilities as he made a case for playing as a true freshman. Did someone say red zone lobs? "It's obviously not my decision, but I honestly think he's talented enough to play as a freshman, and he's picked up the system well," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "It's in the coaches' hands, and hopefully I'll have him out there, throwing to him in the red zone."
Last year, former BC Super Fan Steve Aponavicius became a great story, going from the stands to kicking for his school as a walk-on and eventually kicking the field goal that won the bowl game. He was rewarded with a scholarship for his efforts but was challenged by touted freshman Billy Bennett. But Jagodzinski announced Aponavicius as the kicker, with the hope being he can redshirt Bennett.
Billy Flutie, whose family name clearly carried some weight at BC, is a multi-positional player who had landed at wide receiver. He, too, was battling injury through camp but looked ready to go late. Flutie's versatility stretches him to backup punter and potential third-string quarterback.
Jagodzinski was impressed with the play of freshman quarterbacks Chris Johnson and Dominique Davis in the scrimmages. Neither figures to have to waste a year of eligibility this season.
With all the focus on the offense and the new blocking scheme, there wasn't much talk about the defense. But this unit figures to be strong and the Eagles are deep enough at linebacker to absorb the loss of Brian Toal, who will sit out the season rehabbing after shoulder surgery and likely return for a fifth year.
The defense had an easier transition than the offense, which has all new coaches. The D is still run by holdover coordinator Frank Spaziani, with Bill McGovern still in charge of the talented group of linebackers.
The Big Picture
Tom O'Brien, speaking before he left for N.C. State, said he thought the 2007 Eagles would have been his best team at The Heights. Now Jeff Jagodzinski has a chance to take that next step and advance to the bigger bowl games O'Brien failed to reach during his otherwise successful run. After eight straight bowl games (seven wins), BC hopes to get to one people really care about. The Eagles return 17 starters and don't appear thin in any area, but they must overcome opening the season with three straight ACC games the middle one against O'Brien and the Wolfpack.
Former BC offensive coordinator Dana Bible, now with O'Brien in Raleigh, often received criticism for being too conservative, too predictable. New coordinator Steve Logan has never been accused of that. Armed with the ACC's preseason player of the year in quarterback Matt Ryan, Logan's offense figures to be more explosive, and Ryan now will have the freedom to see what he likes and doesn't like at the line and change the play. The new coaches have been wowed by the kid's brain, as well as his physical talent, and they appear ready and willing to turn him loose.
Done For Me Lately
Year BE/ACC Overall Postseason
1997 3-4 (5) 4-7 None
1998 3-4 (5) 4-7 None
1999 4-3 (3) 8-4 Insight.com Bowl (L)
2000 3-4 (5) 7-5 Aloha Bowl (W)
2001 4-3 (3) 8-4 Music City Bowl (W)
2002 3-4 (4) 9-4 Motor City Bowl (W)
2003 3-4 (5) 8-5 San Francisco Bowl (W)
2004 4-2 (1) 9-3 Continental Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (1A) 9-3 MPC Computers (W)
2006 5-3 (2A) 10-3 Meineke Bowl (W)
ACC: 10-6 (.625)
Overall: 76-45 (.628)
Whenever you talk about BC, you have to talk about the offensive line, because it always seems to begin and end there. This season promises more thrills and chills on offense, but that doesn't mean the Eagles will abandon their power running game. Tackle Gosder Cherilus, the latest in a long line of NFL-bound blockers from Chestnut Hill, has moved to the left side and knows that his task is two-fold: "It's my job to keep (Ryan) clean, too."
Coming On Strong
Mark Herzlich earned time as a true freshman at middle linebacker last season. Now, with Brian Toal out for the year, Herzlich will move outside, where he should continue to develop and become a factor. He's not listed as a starter, but he'll play a lot. Also, all of the linebackers have the benefit of continuing to work under two of the best members of the previous staff, coordinator Frank Spaziani and linebackers coach Bill McGovern.
Cause For Concern?
Life on the offensive line has been a whirlwind. First, Jagodzinski brought in his zone-blocking scheme, a huge change from the past. Then, during spring drills, brand-new line coach Jim Turner abruptly resigned, and Jack Bicknell Jr. took over. In August, there was shuffling at every line position except left tackle, and in some cases young, inexperienced players surprisingly were plugged into key roles. Could that much change possibly be good?
The Whole Truth
"We've got a lot of guys here, a lot of guys that have played in a lot of games. The past few years, they've only been one win away. That's our goal to go to a BCS bowl and play on Jan. 1. It's not like I'm building this thing from scratch."
Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski
Chart by: The BC Insider